Nusrat came to me when I was 15 years old. At a time when Biggy Hypnotized, Heavy D was getting us to call him Big Poppa, and we were No Diggitying from here to Gotham City.
At that age, I went to the kind of school where the only thing less cool than being brown, was behaving brown. So I became a chameleon. One moment, yelling ‘Hip Hip Hoorah and one for a Jolly Good Game’ after a smashing hockey match. The next, pretending I was the fifth member of En Vogue, smouldering in my performance in front of the mirror.
Then Nusrat came to me, with a crazy, feverish sound that I had never heard before. A rhythm that spoke to my soul, and a voice whose sheer mad passion matched the intensity of my teenage hormones. I had found my musical home. I was far too embarrassed to let anyone know of my little secret. After all, Nusrat did not have the lazy swag of R & B, the street cred of Hip Hop. Nusrat was raw, completely unrestrained. He lost his shit, and his music was designed to make you lose yours.
Let me back up a bit. I am talking about the incomparable Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the master of the Qawwali. The Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music originating in then Persia, dating back over 700 years. The Sufis are a mystical sect of Islam who believe that spiritual enlightenment can be found through music. The songs are a poetic litany in praise of Allah. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was by far the most popular Qawwali maestro of modern times, coming from a family that had sung Qawwalis for almost 600 years.
Traditionally Qawwalis are performed live by a whole group of musicians, called the party. They start out tentative, switching between verse and chorus, chanting the most exquisite poetry. As they build up the tempo, the words start losing their meaning, and with frenzied jazz like scatting, they whip the audience into an incensed fevour until they enter a trance like state. Fana. Spiritual ecstasy. When you cease to exist, and are annihilated in your love of Him.
The songs are long, each one up to 45 minutes long. Spiritual ecstasy is not a 3 minute synthesized pop song. Qawwalis. They demand patience. You cannot be a passive observer, an appreciative listener. No. You are immersed, thrown into a guttural energy that throbs. Life slides away from your shoulders, leaving you bare, and your heart exposed. It wrings your soul. It is visceral and not always comfortable.
There are some things in my life that I mourn I will never experience. They are gone forever, and with them an opportunity to dig deeper into my humanity. One of them is never having seen Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan perform live. Intimately. The man was gigantic. He took up space. A man whose voice and presence demanded you create room. That you clear your body of the drudgery of life, and submit to the torturous beauty of man experiencing art at an almost primal level.
My favourite tribute to Nusrat is by the incredible Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif, who starts by saying
‘The first time I saw Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, he was stuck in the door of a van and I feared that he might never be able to get out. I was eight years old and had never seen a man so enormous.’
It was only years later, courtesy of YouTube that I got a chance to see a live performance. It was hypnotic. He was possessed. Sweat pouring off his face. His eyes squinted into nothingness, pain and pleasure indistinguishable. His plump hands, piercing the air, his head shaking, his arms waving, always waving.
A few weeks ago, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan visited Nairobi. Rahat is Nusrat’s protégé and nephew, and had been singing with Nusrat since he was three years old! Rahat was chosen by Nusrat.
On the night of Rahat’s show, the hall at KICC was filled to the brim, as Muhindis crawled out from Parklands, South C, Ngara, Runda, Westlands, just about every corner of the city. It seemed like every Indian in Nairobi had come out to watch Nusrat’s chosen one. They strutted in like peacocks, hairsprayed to the hilt, a deluge of sequins, bangles jingling, heels clicking and heady perfume sprayed on every pulse point.
The crowd waited patiently for Rahat to make an appearance. Finally, he walked out on stage with his party, all dressed in matching sparkly Sherwanis, to the backdrop of psychedelic flashing lights. They even had saxophones and electric guitars. My heart sunk. This was a production. Nusrat would never have dreamed of distracting us with sequins.
I had prepared myself not to expect Nusrat’s insanity. Rahat was measured, sitting cross legged on the stage. He started out with candyfloss Bollywood songs until the crowd lustily demanded Qawwalis. He started each song with a sweet smile, a beckoning to the audience, a testing of the tune in a voice almost too sweet, too controlled. You resigned yourself to the fact that, yes the music is lovely. It truly is lovely. But lovely is just nice.
And then out of nowhere, it snuck up and you were allowed a glimpse of pure abandon, when Rahat himself slipped beyond the edges of control. It was magic. Those moments that spanned mere minutes, were the very reason you were there.
His voice scatted out like the beat of your heart. Like the pulse in your veins. Like the vibration of your very being. In those moments, you felt like nobody else in the world could possibly feel the way you feel. It left you breathless, on the edge of your seat, every hair on your body standing on your skin. As if it was indecent, this, what was happening to you. Till finally he dropped the beat, and with a shake of the shoulders and flourish of his hands, he smiled. A puppet master. The smile of one who knows exactly what he did. And you could not help but applaud. Burst into it. It made you want to jump to your feet and celebrate that there exists something in this world that could make you feel this way. Feel in a way that is almost unbearable. It left you exhausted. Spent. Exhilarated.
Here is a taster of Nusrat and Rahat. It is an acquired taste, and you will need to be patient, but it is well worth it.
Nusrat performing one of my favourite Qawwalis – look out for a taste of his mastery from 11:57 onwards (you can see Rahat as the young man on the far right of the group matching Nusrat) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ui2deAKr8
Another of Nusrat performing Allah Hoo (again from 25:00 onwards is amazing) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpdM_-YuNPo
Rahat performing – (The deliciousness starts at 6:40, and by 9:34 it reaches the crescendo) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLNa0Ep9ZO0
Nursat in one of his more experimental pieces with Michael Brock. This song should be played in the dark, with your eyes shut to the world. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttQmxKHjOJM
(As a suggestion from lydzayar I did an audio clip of the story, for those of you don’t really like to read, as some stories are indeed better heard out loud, but have no idea how to get it up here. So till next time then.)